When in 1763 Florida was ceded by Spain to England, a definite boundary at the St. Mary’s River was set for the province. Thus Fernandina again became the border town of Florida, a situation which was to have further significance thirteen years later when the American Revolution broke out.
The English divided Spanish Florida into East Florida and West Florida, a division that continued through the second Spanish occupation, and into the American territorial era. It was the basis for the establishment of the first two counties, St. Johns and Escambia. Amelia lay on the northern boundary of East Florida.
A town on Amelia Island, labeled Egmont Town, with regular streets laid out, appears on an English map of 1767, prepared for the Earl of Egmont, one of the Lords of Trade and Plantations, the Parliamentary Committee which governed the American colonies, He obtained by grant a tract on the north end of the island and because of a government bounty on indigo, developed a large plantation to produce this crop. Indigo still grows wild in this region.
In March 1774, William Bartram, noted botanist, on his tour of East Florida in preparation for reports of the natural resources of this newest English territory, visited Amelia Island. He landed on the northern coast of the island, walked : through the oak and palm forest that is now a State Park (see Fort Clinch), and crossed a little creek. This must have been the present Clark’s Creek, then called Egan’s Creek, for the manager of the Egmont plantation, who escorted Bartram over the island. Interested in archaeology as well as other features of the area, Bartram wrote, “On Egmont estate are several very large Indian tumuli, which are called Ogeechee mounts, so named from that nation of Indians who took shelter here, after being driven from their native settlements on the main near Ogeechee River. Here they were constantly harassed by the Carolinians and Creeks, and at length slain by their conquerors, and their bones entombed in these heaps of earth and shells.” 1
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Florida remained loyal to England. Fort Tonyn was erected by the British on the northern coast of Amelia near where Fort Clinch now stands. It was named for the fiery Tory who was governor of Florida in the last nine years of British rule. In May 1777 American forces under Colonel Samuel Elbert landed near the fort. Its defenders must have withdrawn, for it was not until an American patrol met a British force on the southern end of the island that an engagement took place. The British killed an American officer: and wounded two soldiers; in retaliation Colonel Elbert burned houses and destroyed the cattle on the island.
In 1777, a British force under Captain James M. Prevost surprised an American camp ‘at Thomas’ Swamp on Nassau River, the southern portion of Amelia River. All but fifty Americans fled, though the remnant fought until obligated to retreat. Eight Americans were killed and thirty-one captured, including two captains. Before Captain Prevost could intervene, Indian allies of the British murdered half of the captives.
General Robert Howe invaded Florida in 1778 with 3,000 Americans. Many skirmishes took place between the St. Mary’s and the St. Johns Rivers, especially at Nassau Bluff, on the northern shore of Nassau River, and at Alligator Creek. At the present town of Callahan, 300 American cavalry attacked 450 British on June 30th without decisive results for either side. The American invasion was a failure, attributable more to losses from illness than from fighting. After 500 Americans had died, a council of war was held at Fort Tonyn on July 11th, and the army withdrew. Several American soldiers remained on Amelia Island, in Old Town, where their lots were recorded on the town chart as belonging to them but with “no record of transfer of title from the original owner.”
The population of Florida during the Revolution increased as the fortune of the British waned in the colonies to the north. Wealthy Tories from South Carolina and Georgia brought their slaves, and other portable possessions to Florida. Tonyn, the English Governor of East Florida, was so successful in his energetic campaign to attract these settlers, that when Cornwallis surrendered, there were 16,000 English in the province. Plantations were especially numerous in northeast Florida, along the Halifax and Nassau Rivers. The latter river was named by settlers for the West Indian city of that name.
At first, the American Revolution seemed to have little significance for Florida, other than the migration into it of many British refugees from the Southern States. However, in February 1783, Governor Tonyn received notice from England that by the preliminary articles in the Treaty of Paris, Florida had been ceded to Spain, and English citizens were given 18 months to leave the province.
This news was a stunning blow to the settlers, who had been encouraged by the British Government to come to Florida. Their move had entailed great losses and remaining funds had been expended in new homes, seeds for crops and other necessities, In spite of pitiful pleas to the mother country for intercession, the British were forced to evacuate the territory—going to the Bahamas, West Indies, Nova Scotia, and England.
Amelia Island was selected as the point of embarkation, because of its capacious harbor. Long lines of wagon trains came to the shores, and many small boats also dumped their cargoes there. Mountains of baggage, tented colonies of settlers with their slaves, cattle, harvested crops, and even naval stores extended for miles around the Amelia settlement. Confusion, distress and terror prevailed. For a year bandits, among them the American deserter, Daniel McGirt, preyed upon unprotected travelers, until finally two troops of horsemen were delegated to check the reign of terror. In spite of this protection, houses continued to be plundered and burned, while horses, cattle, and Negroes were stolen throughout the months of moving. Natives were so afraid of McGirt that they refused to form a posse to capture him.
In May 1783 a convoy of food ships arrived at Amelia and was held until September so that the settlers might harvest their crops and thus have food to take to their new homes. No money was available, for sales of property soon glutted the market so that little could be gained therefrom. Governor Parr of Nova Scotia described one transport with 200 Florida refugees as “miserable wretches without a shilling, naked, destitute.”
In June, the first ships left for Jamaica and New Providence and two ships sailed for England. Planters owning Negroes preferred the West Indies. A few embarked in privately chartered vessels, carrying the lumber of demolished wooden houses, for reassembling in the new land. By 1784 hundreds of Florida planters were in the West Indies and seven more transports left the St. Mary’s River that year.
Some of the dispossessed still lingered in America, sending petition after petition to England in the hope that the British Government would reconsider holding Florida. Transports were still leaving Amelia in October 1784; evacuation was not formally completed until November 19, 1785, when two transports sailed for England with Governor Tonyn, his officers and their families.
The above material was written and compiled by “Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Florida, Sponsored by the Florida State Planning Board, and copyrighted by the City Commission of Fernandina in 1940.” There were no subsequent copyrights on this material and the material entered the public domain in 1968, or 28 years after the publication of material. This material uses phraseology and words which may be considered offensive to readers today.
- The Ogeechee are more commonly known by the name of Yuchi.